You know the story. On August 7, 1998, two Al Qaeda suicide bombers detonated a massive truck filled with explosives outside the US Embassy. At around the same time, at 10.30a.m., a similar bombing was happening in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The Nairobi bombing recorded 213 deaths and thousands of casualties, the majority from the neighboring building, The Co-operative Bank Building. It housed several more people in its high-rise architectural wonder of glass and was not bomb-resistant, not like the US embassy.
The story you might not know, is that US intelligence were well aware of the imminent attack months before it happened. They had identified an Al Qaeda cell in Kenya and were surveilling its members. They had an eight-page letter written by an Al Qaeda operative talking about bomb makers coming to Nairobi.
Kenyan intelligence had also warned US intelligence about this plan to attack. In fact, the November before – in 1997 – a man who worked for Al Qaeda had walked into the US embassy itself and told US intelligence about the plan to blow it up.
Prudence Bushnell, the US ambassador to Kenya at the time, had written to the US begging for more security. I remember that she had also begged them to relocate the embassy to outside the CBD.
After the bombing attack, Washington called her and asked her, How could this have happened?
Bushnell was mortified. She said, But I wrote you a letter!
This story is not mine, I have borrowed it from a book I just finished reading.
The book is ‘What the Dog Saw’ by Malcolm Gladwell. I am sure you know Malcolm Gladwell. Or have heard of him. He wrote that book that became popular. Rather, the concept from the book of 10,000 hours became popular. ‘The Outliers.’
Malcolm here posited that to be really good at something – no matter if it is writing, cooking, running, fooling around – then you must put in at least 10,000 hours of practice.
I have not read ‘The Outliers’ yet. I will read it last, after I have read all of Malcolm’s other books. Reading it last will be my rebellion to the pop culture trend. (I know, ha-ha, I am being silly. And petty.)
Anyway, this story about the August 7 bombing is from ‘What the Dog Saw’. The story goes into great detail about terrorist attacks and suicide bombings across the world.
Malcolm asks the question we all ask after the bombings: Our country’s intelligence knew about these imminent attacks yet they didn’t do anything to stop them. Why?
I will let you read the book to get the answer to this question. It turns out that connecting the dots from the intelligence collected to stopping the attacks is not as straightforward as you and I imagine it to be.
Malcolm is a fascinating storyteller. He is also not a lazy writer, either – he does his research, interviews the people behind the scenes, crunches the numbers. His appetite for looking underneath the hood of the car and tearing the greasy engine apart screw by screw, is geeky and beautiful.
Aside from this story about the terrorist attacks, he also looks into the story of a man whose job is to calm the angriest and meanest of animals with the just touch of his hand. Malcolm is not interested in how the man calms these troubled dogs and whatnot, he is more interested in what the dogs see when the master is working his magic.
Malcolm also looks at the inventor of the birth control pill, what this inventor – a Catholic priest – didn’t know about women’s health.
He looks into the art of failure. Into the myth of talent, where he asks the question, ‘Are smart people overrated?’
(What do you think? Are they overrated?)
Malcolm writes about the shortcomings of job interviews, about knowing how to hire when you can’t tell who is right for the job from just the interview. He calls it the quarterback problem – the problem is that there are jobs such as teaching where you can’t predict how the teachers will do until they are in the classroom teaching your children for an entire school year.
My favourite story in the book is Late Bloomers: it is about people who don’t make it until they are in their 40s and 50s. There are even some paragraphs toward the end of that chapter that make me bawl my eyes out like a little girl.
My second favourite story is about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Malcom asks, Who can be blamed for such a disaster?
‘What the Dog Saw’ is a wonderful book and I suggest you get it.
You will read it slowly, a chapter at most a day, perhaps even half of it. You will find yourself looking up from the page every so often to mull over something Malcolm has said.
You will sometimes become overwhelmed with all the names and numbers and places he mentions. Sometimes so much that you put the book aside or skim over those parts.
You will catch yourself throwing in some of his ideas over a drink with your pals. Or you will be going through a life experience where you will find yourself asking, What would Malcom think about this? How would he write about it?
Most of all, you will endlessly recommend the book to others, as I have you.
Cop your copy from Half Priced Bookshop. It’s 800 bob there.
PS. I don’t listen to podcasts because I’m a visual learner. I prefer reading books and pictures. And crunching numbers, of course. Word on the streets is that Malcolm’s podcast is just as riveting as his books are.
The podcast is called ‘Revisionist History’.
Give it a whirl.
An edited version of this story first ran in the Saturday Nation on July 23, 2022. It ran under my ‘Culture’ column.2